What Millennials and Machines Are Doing to HR

The way your company thinks about and manages its workers needs to change. In some sectors, recruiters are already having trouble filling jobs that don’t appeal to millennials, while in others, technological advancements such as sentient tools are making human workers superfluous.

Businesses that are just starting to think about how they’re going to balance automation and staffing are already running late. Technological advancements happen in leaps and bounds, and the innovations that are coming online right now are going to take us for a wild ride.

The answer isn’t complete automation; sentient tools that can think, are aware, and are social can do a lot of things, but they can’t replace all types of workers — at least not yet. According to a 2017 Adobe study on the future of work, two-thirds of U.S. office workers think their job requires human abilities that technology will never replace. For the next five or ten years, there’s going to be a lot of disruption, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Change always is.

Job-hopping is not a dirty word

The greatest expense in any organization is labor. People are costly to find, train, and keep. But millennials are job-hoppers, readily changing employers in their pursuit of learning and growth. Tell a millennial they’re going to have four or five jobs in their whole lives, and they’ll say, “Why just four or five? Why can’t I have more?”

In 2016, 25% of millennials said they’d leave their current jobs for the right opportunity, and only 16% expect to be with the same company in 10 years. This willingness to shift jobs isn’t limited to millennials; 57% of senior managers plan on leaving their employers in the next two years as well. Clearly, the concept of company loyalty is as outdated as three-martini lunches.

All that costly talent going out the door hurts the balance sheet, and it hurts people’s feelings too. Most companies think of workers who leave as traitors. That attitude is understandable, but it’s also counter-productive. An employee who leaves learns new skills and gains unique experience on somebody else’s dime. Companies shouldn’t just welcome these workers back, they should institute programs to actively re-recruit them. Re-recruitment is the only way for a company to recapture their initial investment in the worker, and sometimes may even be a way to learn the best practices of competitors.

The robot revolution

The United States produces about 18% of the world’s manufactured goods, second only to China. This volume of output requires vast numbers of workers, but millennials tend to steer away from manufacturing jobs. This generation is far more interested in opportunities to learn and grow than previous generations, and that desire can’t be fulfilled in a job centered on the performance of a repetitive task. Millennials’ distaste for these jobs is a looming catastrophe for manufacturers, because millennials will make up 75% of the workforce in just 10 years. Who’s going to man the lines?

Some companies have the opposite problem. Instead of struggling to attract workers, they’re trying to figure out how to right-size their headcount in the face of automation and sentient tools that take jobs away from humans. The knee-jerk reaction of most companies is to lay off some workers and retrain others. This approach is like trying to outrun a tsunami. The company will never get safely ahead and will often fall dangerously behind as newer technologies eat up more jobs. There’s no great reason to train a cashier whose job was replaced by self-checkouts to become a stocker if robots will handle stocking in 20 months.

Businesses have to understand their workers as whole humans, not just performers of tasks. The mindset has to switch from what must this person do to what might this person do.

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Consider the whole person

We have been trained to think of people as records. We get our degrees and are stamped lawyer or doctor, and that’s what we are for the rest of our lives. But people are more than lawyers or doctors. They are children, parents, and maybe gamers or stamp collectors. All of those experiences contribute to a person’s skills and potential, and a career is just a fraction of a whole human.

Companies that recognize and leverage the complete value of individuals will have adaptable workforces. Robots break down; there’s a need for robot repairmen. Are there mechanics already on staff who can be trained for this work? Later, can some of these mechanics be trained to program the robots? Or design them? Can logistics personnel become skilled at gathering and interpreting data to decide where to deploy these new robots? The possibilities are limitless when a worker isn’t boxed into a job function but is instead viewed as a potential problem-solver.

To make this happen, constant education is key. Some companies may balk at this: Education isn’t cheap, and it hurts productivity in the short term. But boards of directors are seeing the writing on the wall, and they know that if they don’t re-envision their businesses, they may not be around in 10 years. A workforce that is flexible enough to allow a corporation to adapt to new competitive stresses isn’t merely a nice thing to have; it’s table stakes for business continuity.

Brian David Johnson

Brian David Johnson is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a futurist and fellow at Frost & Sullivan, a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth. He also works with governments, militaries, trade organizations and startups to help them envision their future. He has over 30 patents and is the author of a number of books of fiction and nonfiction, including Science Fiction Prototyping; Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment, Computing and the Devices We Love; Humanity and the Machine: What Comes After Greed?; and Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey through Steampunk into the Future of Technology. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal and Slate to IEEE Computer and Successful Farming, and he appears regularly on Bloomberg TV, PBS, Fox News and the Discovery Channel. He has directed two feature films, and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.